In a wide-ranging interview, Julie Byrne talks about her unique role as president of a large construction company, about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how technology is moving the industry forward.
Founded in 1983, CSM Group is a project management company headquartered in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with branch offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Memphis, Tennessee. The company is licensed to work in 31 states as well as in Canada.
The company’s portfolio includes multiple projects in highly regulated and specialized areas like the food and beverage, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries; and in health care, educational, and commercial markets. It includes construction of new facilities as well as renovation of existing ones with minimal disruption to the business operations.
CSM Group CEO Steve East describes Julie Byrne, appointed president this past February, “as a strong strategic thinker with the breadth of business experience we believe is critical to nurture client relationships, lead with innovation, and commit to our people and core values.”
“I am incredibly honored and humbled to have this opportunity as a woman leading a large construction firm,” Byrne says. “It’s exciting as a woman to be in a leadership role in a male-dominated industry and I really want to be a role model for other women.
“I think my appointment also speaks to CSM Group being a leader in the industry. It’s not only about the role, but I think it speaks to how we approach construction management and the work we do.”
When Byrne graduated from The Pennsylvania State University with a degree in civil engineering, she says she had not set her sights on an executive position. Instead, her plan was to do really good work in structural engineering and to contribute to the construction community. However, she felt that before she could design a building, she needed to understand how to build one.
This led to four years in construction management at a national company in Baltimore, before moving to Michigan and joining CSM Group exactly 16 years ago this month, where she says she is surrounded by “an amazing team.” Here, after spending some more time in the field as a project manager, she won the company’s Walt East: Excellence in Customer Service Award in 2011.
She attributes her success in customer service in part to her engineering degree, which lends itself to problem solving. “I always looked for ways to improve the business and how we serve our customers,” she says.
Before becoming president, Byrne spent a few years developing the Pre-Construction Department, which grew from a few estimators to a team of nine and established an ‘internal gate process’, a unique program developed in-house that ensures checks and balances are in place on all project sites.
CSM Group, she says, really understands that being proactive and planning prevent poor performance and are what separate CSM Group from companies who take a reactive “wait and see what happens when the shovel hits the ground” approach.
While the pre-construction department in many companies consists only of estimators, the estimating team at CSM Group is just “one leg”. The other leg considers such concerns as building information modeling, safety, risk management for both company and client, and a communication platform for the team and owner that lasts through the life cycle of the project, from the moment the company is awarded a project until close-out.
To this end, Compliance One, a CSM Group brand, is a safety and emergency management program that reduces the stress of accreditation compliance for owners, while SPARK Business Works is a sister company of CSM Group that creates custom software, digital products, and strategic designs such as mobile apps, dashboards and workflow tools that help companies update their processes and brands.
Technology has been an important tool during this time of COVID-19, according to Byrne, “not just on the physical side, but also on the emotional side.” Early on in the pandemic, CSM Group led the way with the creation of an electronic self-declaration and health screening program that was used on company job sites. Then SPARK was able to build and grow the technology to the extent that there are now more than 500 contractors using this system on over 700 job sites nationwide.
“We were able to build something in-house that has streamlined how we function at our job sites, and then we’ve leveraged that technology and shared it with trade and general contractors across the U.S.,” she says.
When students who are interested in technology consider their futures, they often do not realize the connection between technology and construction, and consequently do not consider career potential in the industry, contributing to the labor shortage. As a mother of three young boys, Byrne realizes that the best way to get young people interested is to introduce the breadth of opportunities at an early age, otherwise the labor shortage will never be overcome.
CSM Group has taken a proactive approach. Working in the K-12 group as well as in the higher education market, they begin with “Kids Construction Zone.” It’s basically a fun, active website which uses videos and 360-degree camera images to show how trades, project managers, designers and engineers work together to build a seven-story building in Kalamazoo.
It was developed during the pandemic to give kids something to do at home, while exposing them to the industry. This instructive and entertaining content can also be incorporated by teachers into an elementary curriculum.
Other components include career day fairs and mentorship programs in high schools. “Young people need an understanding of the industry; that it can be in the trades or in the technology realm. There are just so many opportunities that I think people aren’t aware of,” she says.
Focus on diversity
A major component of CSM Group’s workforce development program includes consideration of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to that end it has hired a DEI consultant and works with such local agencies as The Kalamazoo Promise®, Urban Alliance, the Northside Association for Community Development, and varied organizations nationally that engage and empower others. It’s a win-win for CSM Group and for the larger community.
CSM Group’s idea of diversity expands beyond employees as the company focuses on establishing collaborative relationships with minorities and disadvantaged subcontractors, not just in Michigan but across the country. Byrne is of the opinion that “it is imperative that we put biases and stereotypes aside in the industry and work together.”
Byrne also wants to provide equal opportunities for everyone and practice inclusiveness, ending situations where some employees or subcontractors are given preferential treatment.
“This industry is experiencing a labor shortage. But there are incredible opportunities on a wide spectrum, and I think we can fix the problem through equity, and by being inclusive and breaking down barriers to allow everyone the same opportunities.”
Projects, present and future
Since CSM Group’s early days, the company has enjoyed a relationship with Bronson Healthcare Group, which has a 28-acre campus in downtown Kalamazoo as well as hospitals in South Haven, Battle Creek and Paw Paw, Michigan.
The largest construction management project CSM Group executed for them was the five-story, 750,000 square foot Bronson Methodist Hospital, incorporating a four-story healing-space atrium. In 2017 the project was awarded the American Health Care Architect’s Legacy Project Award.
CSM Group recently managed construction of the new 55,000 square foot Bronson Laboratory Testing Facility. As a full-service testing laboratory, with a staff of over 300, the facility is able to fulfill more than 3.5 million orders a year for Bronson system hospitals and clinics, and other health care providers throughout southwestern Michigan.
Back in May of 2019, ground was broken in downtown Kalamazoo for another Bronson project, the 85,000 square foot, five-story Cancer Pavilion, an outpatient facility that houses offices for oncology, hematology and infusion services. Thanks to eight months of detailed and meticulous pre-construction planning – and despite the pandemic – it opened this past January, less than two years after construction began.
“These projects impact the community in a very positive way,” Byrne says. The opening of the pavilion means cancer patients can receive treatment without having to travel long distances, she explains, while the laboratory was adapted for COVID-19 testing.
Recently in Canada, CSM Group managed an equipment installation for a potato processing plant expansion in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. To ensure it was installed correctly, the company managed the scope of work, the budget, and the schedule.
Also, currently under construction in Kalamazoo is 180 E. Water Street, a seven-story, mixed-use development that combines residential housing, Class A office space, and a 300-space parking deck. Among the tenants will be Southwest Michigan First (Economic Development Agency), The Kalamazoo Promise®, and the Kalamazoo Promise® Institute. These latter two organizations are funded by anonymous donors and offer up to 100 percent tuition for graduates of Kalamazoo public schools attending trade certification programs, community college and universities in Michigan.
Underpinned by CSM Group’s winning formula of leading-edge technology and robust and proactive workforce development, these projects are sure to meet with success. We look forward to seeing what comes next!